Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Horror Movies: Happy Halloween

Time magazine for Halloween provided a list of the most horrifying horror films. My favorite choice:
The inclusion of Bambi delights me: I remember going to see it as a pre-schooler -- I guess that it replayed in theaters a few years after its original debut. My friend Judy told me that Bambi's mother died, so I started crying before it even started.

Complete list: Top 25 Horror Movies. Here's one more for comparison:

Monday, October 29, 2007

Comment on the LA Fires

I was horrified by the Los Angeles fires last week, especially because so many human mistakes contributed to the horror. I found the following quotation enlightening:

"The way that American home builders keep pushing out into new territory, developing parcels of land once considered unsafe for residential construction, is an architectural version of the way that banks and lenders have acted over the last decade, practically tossing money at borrowers once dismissed as too much of a credit risk. The goal in both cases is to maintain a pace of growth and expansion that is ultimately unsustainable." -- From "It's time to recognize, not defy, wildfire risks" by Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer , October 28, 2007. Fire photo also from the LA Times.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Flying Under the Radar

This morning our house guest Yair showed us a video about his experience as a pilot in the Israeli air force. In the late 1980s, he flew missions into Sudan to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel. The Ethiopian Jews lived in remote and primitive villages. Conditions of life were deteriorating as rebels were taking over the country. Jewish Ethiopians feared for their lives and began to walk away from their long-term homes, hoping that they would get to "Jerusalem." The Israelis made a plan to meet them in the desert of the Sudan. Yair and other pilots flew in, landed on the desert at night, quickly loaded the waiting Ethiopians into the cargo space in the plane, and took off again. The logistics and organization of this rescue effort were amazing.

The video showed the loading of the plane on the ground. The clips were filmed with night-vision cameras. All the people appeared as white on black backgrounds. The heat radiating from the plane, its engines still running, was also white. Crowds of shadowy figures were led by men in goggles. They hung onto one another or onto their long scarves as they stumbled onto the plane. I could imagine their fear: none of these people had ever seen an airplane before, and they had been walking across hostile land for days or weeks, then brought to the plane site in trucks. The film clips from inside the plane showed their colorful scarves, which they wrapped around their heads as they sat down on the floor of the plane for the long trip to their new land.

"We had to stay low, under the radar, to avoid the Sudanese authorities, who didn't know we were there," said Yair. "If we lost pressure, we had no oxygen masks for the people crowded onto the plane. There were no non-hostile airfields between the landing spot and Tel Aviv." The Israelis succeeded in a number of missions, and the Ethiopians are now citizens of Israel.

Yair and several other visitors from Nahalal are here to further develop the relationship between their community and ours. Yair was our guest on Friday and Saturday nights. He and his wife were our hosts at dinner when we visited the Nahalal Moshav in May, 2006, as I described in Visit to Migdal HaEmek, Upper Nazereth, and Nahalal.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Oceanic White-Tip Shark

As my friends know, I don't scuba dive, but I often accompany Lenny on dive boats. In May, 2005, we had a week of extraordinary diving and snorkeling conditions off Kona, Hawaii. One day on the way to the dive site, we saw a pod of pilot whales. We got in the water and took a look. One whale had a calf with her. The experience was profound.

Between dives, the divers must wait for a while for safety reasons. During this interval, our very knowledgeable guide took us to the spot where he thought we could again see the pilot whales. He warned us that in the Kona area, oceanic white-tip sharks often follow the pilot whales. In this case, two sharks were circling each other in a tight circle, not far from the whales. We all got in the water to snorkel over and see them. The guides were very excited, as it's an unusual sighting. One of them used Lenny's camera to take several photos as he dived down to be nearer to them. Here is one of these photos:

The sharks were fascinating. I didn't think about danger much, though I'm anything but brave. After I watched them for a while, I decided to go back to the boat. When I said so, the guide took my arm and said:

"Don't leave the group!"

I was amazed. I really didn't have a sense of danger.

This month's Alert Diver magazine has more about these animals:
Jacques Cousteau called the oceanic white-tip "the most dangerous of all sharks." Surprisingly, this shark is the cause of more fatal shark attacks than all other sharks combined, and the total number of fatalities is probably in the thousands.
I'm even more amazed to learn this. The author, John Monk, concludes with a conservation message:
While it's important to support efforts to protect all sea life, it's important to protect sharks to maintain a healthy marine environment.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Israeli Landmark

On each of our trips to Israel we have frequently driven past a huge garbage mountain. Towering over the flat landscape, the garbage makes an unintentional landmark gateway to Tel Aviv from the east or south. On our first trip (1997), we watched huge numbers of gulls and other birds swooping around the freshly delivered garbage, which at the time included much that could have been recycled. Unfortunately, garbage handling has not been an Israeli strong point.

This is all changing. Today's New York Times covers the conversion of this monster dump into a monument to recycling. If it signals a change in overall Israeli attitudes and practices, that would be wonderful.

The article: Recycling in Israel, Not Just Trash, but the Whole Dump. The photo, which accompanied the article, shows an archway made from recycled items.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Autumn in the Arb

We went on a walk today, a beautiful and exceptionally warm day, perfect for going down to the river through the Arboretum. Various improvements have appeared in the Arb lately. We've noticed that a boardwalk was under construction. Today it was open.

Another new facility: check out the drinking fountain for dogs, next to the one for people. You run water quickly into the dog-level bowl, and the water runs out very slowly so that the dog can drink. Dogs, of course, don't mind sharing a bowl -- they have sterile mouths.

The new steps down to the river have been in place for a couple of years. Today a number of kayaks were going by, while kids waded in the water. One group managed to turn their kayaks over in the shallow part of the river in front of the steps, and fooled around trying to empty the water out of them.

The tall grass and reeds are very dry, and of course the leaves are turning yellow and orange.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

"Call him drunken Ira Hayes..."

The most dramatic story of the Iwo Jima flag raisers is Ira Hayes. He said: "How could I feel like a hero when only five men in my platoon of 45 survived, when only 27 men in my company of 250 managed to escape death or injury?" (Quote and photo from the Iwo Jima Memorial website.)

Good combination: Bradley's Flags of our Fathers and Johnny Cash "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" --
Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won't answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin' Indian
Nor the Marine that went to war

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The War: Bradley and Burns

I've been reading Flags of our Fathers by James Bradley. Since our bookclub selection process took place last winter, it's a coincidence that we picked it for the same time period as Ken Burns's The War. In fact, I don't remember why we picked it or who championed it.

The contrast between the two treatments of World War II is interesting. Burns is critical of the Americans. Although he admires the individuals that he interviewed, and in fact makes many of them into heroic figures, he stresses numerous American lapses in policy and military actions.

With all the mistakes the American leaders made, Burns at times makes it seem unlikely that we won at all. He singles out mistakes in battlefield leadership, political mistakes, and moral mistakes. One of the strengths of his presentation is showing how American minorities transcended ill treatment. Despite being deprived of their homes and rights, with their families in internment camps, Japanese-American fighters showed their loyalty and bravery. Despite being segregated and disrespected, black Americans are characterized by the valor of black fighters and dedication of black factory workers. These are important points, but I think it's a weakness that Burns assumed that everyone knew all about the Holocaust, so he spent less time on the discovery and liberation of Hitler's death camps than he spent on ill treatment of American minorities.

In Flags of our Fathers, Bradley, despite a life-long personal admiration and enthusiasm for the Japanese people post-war, gives honest and unvarnished accounts of Japanese atrocities and how they affected the soldiers he was writing about. In contrast, Burns rarely mentions how our enemies' policies and actions -- without justifying our failings -- made our moral failings seem less glaring. Why were we fighting? What was at stake? Burns sometimes seems to lose track of our ultimate goals.

Burns' TV series made a point (maybe even a fetish) of concentrating on the ordinary people in wartime, claiming to focus on a few towns. Actually, he tried to show everything about the war -- all the years, a large number of battles, a wide variety of issues. These two conflicting goals, I think, weakened his presentation and sometimes amazingly even made it a little boring. Even the vast quantity of original film and photos didn't make up for the conflicting visions.

Bradley's concentration on the ordinary people came naturally with his subject: the detailed exploration of the lives of the soldiers shown in the war's most famous photo, the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima -- one of whom was his own father. While Burns's presentation sometimes seemed to imply that America could do nothing right, Bradley made every American into a hero. He also kept stressing that the heroes, as his father said, were the ones who didn't come back. And that often what seems to be heroic is just an ordinary person doing what he has to do.

"We certainly weren't heroes," -- his father's repeated words. (p. 353)

Sometimes Bradley's prose was a little corny -- or a lot. But in the end, all things considered, I like Bradley's work better. (I have not seen the film version of Flags of our Fathers.)

Here is a photo of me during the war. I find it very in tune with what Bradley was saying.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Read Krugman Today!

Paul Krugman's column today has a wonderful set of observations on Al Gore and the Nobel Prize: Krugman: Gore Meltdown. He says, among other things:

The worst thing about Mr. Gore, from the conservative point of view, is that he keeps being right....

Consider the policy implications of taking climate change seriously.

“We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals,” said F.D.R. “We know now that it is bad economics.” These words apply perfectly to climate change. It’s in the interest of most people (and especially their descendants) that somebody do something to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, but each individual would like that somebody to be somebody else. Leave it up to the free market, and in a few generations Florida will be underwater.

Today is Blog Action Day. I have already posted my thoughts on the environment, focus of today's action. I agree that danger to the environment is a very important issue. I plan to see what other bloggers have come up with as well. See Saving the Penguins, What if global warming makes our crops fail? and Environmental Issues and the Food Supply.

Saving the Penguins

For Blog Action Day October 15, I would like to describe Alice and Miriam's recent fund-raiser, which they created themselves. Their goal is "to save the penguins." To do this, they have made greeting cards and sold them to their relatives. They are sending the money to The Center for Biological Diversity. At left is an example of a card that they made.

Children in preschool and elementary school like Miriam and Alice are constantly asked to participate in fund-raisers. They know about walk-a-thons, read-a-thons, gift wrap sales, Girl Scout cookies, bake sales, the Make-a-Wish Foundation and lots of other possibilities.

Apparently, they have also learned about impending dangers to the environment. Sadly, many species of penguin are badly endangered by global warming. We chose The Center for Biological Diversity because of its efforts to have more penguin species declared as endangered, and also because the Charity Navigator site awards them a 4-star rating, meaning they use contributions wisely. The Center's website has the following summary:

More than half of the world’s 19 penguin species are in danger of extinction, yet only one, the Galapagos Penguin, is currently listed under the Endangered Species Act.

On November 28, 2006, the Center petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list 12 of the world’s 19 penguin species under the Endangered Species Act. This protection would provide a vital safety net for these species on the brink of extinction, and also help alert the public to the preventable tragedy of their decline.
Miriam and Alice must really be picking up the spirit of the times. Their fund-raiser fits in with both Al Gore's Nobel Prize and with Blogger Action Day.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Travel with IKEA

You can travel without going far. Shop at IKEA! Today I bought a paring knife for $2.99. It came with a booklet explaining important things like "Knives prefer to be washed by hand." And "A sharp knife is safer to use than a blunt one, so sharpen your knives regularly."

The booklet contained 38 pages to accommodate text in English, Deutsch, Francais, Nederlands, Italiano, Espanol, Portuges, Svenska, Dansk, Norsk, Suomi, Polski, Cesky, Slovensky, Magyar, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese. The booklet doesn't even cover all the countries where Ikea stores are located, such as Turkey, Romania, Saudi Arabia, and Greece.

That plus Swedish Meatballs for lunch and Anna's orange cookies (Swedish recipe, made in Canada) to munch on the way home.

The knife is made in China.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Doris Lessing

New York Times banner:
Breaking News 7:02 AM ET:

Doris Lessing Wins Nobel Prize in Literature

I've been a Doris Lessing fan for years. This is really great news!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

"Water for Elephants"

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is a very popular book. It deserves to be popular. Gruen gives us a first-person story of a very old man in a nursing home. "I am ninety. Or ninety-three," he says --and at the end, finally, we learn what he is missing: he's not sure what year it is.

Jacob Jankowski, the narrator, quite vividly describes his thoughts and feelings about old age and what he hates about it. He explains his efforts to stay alert, remember about his surroundings, and to keep walking despite the discouraging attitude of the staff.

The title at first connects to his distaste for fellow old people and their memories, in particular to the boast of a table companion who says he carried water for elephants in a circus once. As Jacob recalls his past, you learn the other meanings of the title -- and you are drawn into the events that trigger his seventy-year-old memories. We know from the start how extraordinary Jacob's memories will be, because the climax of the tale is also presented as a Prologue before we learn anything else. This contributes to a fascinating reading experience: despite the seeming "spoiler," it's an entirely suspenseful tale.

If the theme of old age and its discontents were the whole story, it would be a boring book. But Jacob is no ordinary old man. As a college student he was suddenly deprived of all promise of a future. Desperate, he ran away and randomly joined a circus. It was a small circus, whose owners were insane -- and insanely jealous of the real thing: Ringling. In the circus, also, he found the most beautiful girl in the world.

If the circus theme were only a scholarly reconstruction of depression-era circus life, the story would lack its main attraction: Rosie the elephant. At first Rosie seems stupid and untrained. Then we find out that she understands and responds only to Polish. Rosie knows which of her handlers are good and which are evil, and acts accordingly. As the narrator relates more and more of his circus life, Rosie becomes the main character in the tale. The wrap-ups of both the present-day nursing home story and the very old circus story also are skillful and satisfying.

The plot of Water for Elephants is complex, with many colorful circus characters and practices. Gruen creates a wonderfully exotic atmosphere. In terms of evoking a different world from early 20th century Americana, I'd compare this book to Seabiscuit: An American Legend.

Monday, October 08, 2007

More Photos

First we watched the beginning of the race, which included police cars and the GEIKO lizard. Above are Tom, Alice, and Miriam, waiting as the runners go by. Finally, we spotted Evelyn and Karrin -- here they are:

While many runners were making their way past us on our side of the street, at the 5-mile point, the leaders of the race came in the other direction. They were already going towards the Potomac River, at the 8-mile point. The front runners:

An interesting post-script: though we all know that the race organizers ran out of water for the runners, in interviews today they are telling the newspapers that they had a plentiful supply! Evelyn was really lucky because Tracy bought a bottle of water for her, and handed it to her as she went by for the second time.

(A day later, on Oct. 9, the race officials did admit to the Washington Post reporter that they had run out of water.)

The Army 10-Miler

The Army 10-Miler route starts and ends at the Pentagon. The 25,000 runners cross the Potomac, circle the main monuments of Washington, DC, and then return across the bridge. Evelyn and her friend Karrin were finishers! They told us how, at the start, paratroopers parachuted down near the starting line, and there was lots of fanfare. Unfortunately, the weather was very hot and humid without a breeze, and the race organizers ran out of water half way through!

Miriam, Alice, Arny, Tracy, Tom, Lenny, and I watched the race from a site near the Smithsonian Metro stop. (When we got off the Metro, Miriam looked up the escalator and said "I love the city!") I'll be adding several photos as well as this one that Arny took, showing the only fully costumed runners that we saw. Sadly, we also saw several young runners with prosthetic legs, which brought home to me what a destructive war we are in, and how much we are asking young men to sacrifice.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Shakespeare: Reduced and Censored

I just read a news article about a performance of this show:

In Mesa, Arizona, yesterday, school officials stopped a performance during presentation to students. They said they thought it was inappropriate and not the kind of show they want the students to see. They didn't like the language. Wait, they didn't like Shakespeare's language? Well, they didn't specify which language they disliked. (As long as it lasts, the link from CNN is: School halts racy Shakespeare play)

According to Windwood Theatricals, who produced the show, it was written in 1987 by the original founders of the Reduced Shakespeare Company and has been undergoing constant metamporphosis. It was a smash hit Off-Broadway as well as the longest running comedy in London -- where, several years ago, I saw and really liked it.

Well, well, well.